Conservation of the great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) and the pink-backed pelican (P. rufescens) in south eastern Africa.
Of the seven pelican species found world wide, only the Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) and the Pink-backed Pelican (P. rufescens) are found in Africa. The KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa supports only one breeding site for each of these species, and both sites represent the southern most breeding colonies for the two species in the eastern region of Africa. These nesting sites fall within the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, and are afforded a degree of protection, but the same is not true for their foraging and dispersal ranges, and this is a cause for concern. Considerable amounts of data have been collected relating to the status, distribution and breeding efforts of these two species in north eastern KwaZulu-Natal. These data have been collected in a variety of ways by a large number of people. Part of this work represents an attempt to collate and summarise these data to produce an estimation of the status, distribution and breeding success of these species, and to evaluate any trends in their demography. For this south eastern region of Africa I estimated the population for the Great White Pelican to range between 6000 and 9000 individuals, and the Pink-backed Pelican to range between 600 and 900 individuals. Pelicans are highly mobile birds, and this allows them to move considerable distances when they forage, disperse or migrate. They are also long-lived birds with few natural predators. The two pelican species in south eastern Africa have been poorly studied and little is known about their movements, population dynamics and causes of mortality. Habitat change poses a potential threat to pelicans in north eastern KwaZulu-Natal, and habitat loss could drive these species out this region to areas north of South Africa. Much of this north eastern region of KwaZulu-Natal is under threat, mainly through the actions of man. Many areas are naturally unsuitable for pelican foraging, while others are vital to the survival of both species. This study includes an attempt to assess the movements of these two species in south eastern Africa, and to assess the relative importance and condition of the potential pelican habitat in the north eastern KwaZulu-Natal region, focusing particularly on Lake St Lucia and the Pongolo River floodplain. All this is necessary to produce a baseline from which long term predictions of potential pelican species survival can be made. In the absence of documented life tables and environmental variability data, a range of parameters was modelled to generate population viability analyses to simulate possible scenarios. These extinction models show the outcomes of both the deterministic and the stochastic processes. An attempt was also made to identify the factors that impact most severely on the persistence of these two species. The models were most sensitive to variation in survivorship in the first year of life and to the frequency of catastrophes. Changes in these parameters had the greatest effect on extinction risk. In January 2004 Lake St Lucia was reduced to a fraction of its normal capacity as a result of a severe drought in this region of KwaZulu-Natal. After rains in the area the lake level rose and then fluctuated considerably over the next 24 months. During this time the mouth of the estuary into the sea was closed. Great White Pelican numbers and lake levels were monitored throughout this period. This part of the study relates the changes in population numbers to the lake conditions, and highlights the importance of the lake to this avian species. It uses lake levels as a proxy for the conditions of wetlands in the Lake St Lucia region. It also addresses the implications of these relationships to the management strategy of the lake and the conservation of some avifauna. To identify conservation concerns for the Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans it was necessary to generate these baseline estimations. Although much of this information is uncertain for these two species, an attempt has been made here to predict the persistence of these species in north eastern KwaZulu-Natal and to highlight the conservation issues related to their future.